Confessions of a Sturgis Lurker

I confess to having a bit of a fascination about riding a motorcycle, a sport which seems to ride right along that fine line between the idea of an exhilarating thrill ride with the wind in my hair and sun on my cheeks, to the reality of fear of potential defacing and dismemberment of my body parts. But those tenuous skinny green branches of the tree of life are where the luscious fruit hangs. If you don’t push yourself out there on the edge of the comfort zone, there is little reward for an adventure-seeker who clings to the sturdy, solid trunk.

My first experience on a motorcycle, or rather a “motor scooter” was on the back of a 1958 Cushman Eagle, arms clutched around my Dad’s waist while breezing down the Farm-to-Market roads in rural Texas. Although Dad bought the scooter for my brother Don, like the horse he bought for me, I suspect there was an element of his own desire in the purchase. He took me for joy rides all over the countryside.

Eventually, Don’s interest turned toward four wheeled vehicles, and I was able to steal the Cushman away for a few joy rides of my own.  I would ride down the Farm-to-Market road to my best friend Susan’s house, as long as her dad, Walter, was home to help me with the kick starter. I was much less afraid of the Cushman than I was the horse!

In my mind, this is what the Cushman scooter looked like, though likely much more benign. The color was the same, tho…

I often fantasize about traveling by motorcycle, particularly as a means to travel long distances, immersing myself deeper into local culture on the back roads, more so than one can often do while insulated by a car. This intrigue is no doubt heightened by the book I am currently reading, Lone Rider: The First British Woman to Motorcycle Around the World by Elspeth Beard. I attended a seminar given by the author when I was volunteering for Overland Expo last May.  I was riveted hearing her speak about the challenges she faced as a 23 year old female rider back in 1982, heading out on a solo journey around the world. Now that was brave!

Photo courtesy of Elspeth Beard, first British woman to ride solo around the world.

So no way am I going to pass through Sturgis, South Dakota, home of the largest motorcycle rally in the world, without at least a stop to have a look around. Having amassed over 500,000 motorcyclists in a town of less than 7,000 during 10 days in August, the rally is now long over. Perfect time to satisfy my curiosity when I can creep down Main Street like a groupie without feeling the intimidation of roaring pipes on my bumper.

Cruising by the Knuckle Saloon.

The bartender tells me this giant beer garden is packed during the rally.

I stop into the iconic Knuckle Saloon where the bartender tells me “Come rally week, the walls here literally pulsate.” Now, the massive structure only echos. Its easy to imagine the scene only a couple of months ago, tables filled with black leather-clad, bandana wearing riders, local brew in hand, comparing the cost of their latest chrome. There are a few stragglers in the saloon today, though most are here for the “Knucklehead Sandwich” off the menu, not the one that no doubt happens from too much libation in the Knuckle Brewery.

Would I like to see Sturgis in full swing? Maybe. But for now, I am content lurking from the fringes.

Scenes from the Knuckle Saloon…

It’s interesting walking the hallowed Main Street, looking at all the left over Sturgis souvenirs and pondering how the empty shops manage to survive the other 11 months and two weeks out of the year.

In thinking about the 500,000 riders that descend on Sturgis every August, I wonder what percent of those actually take risks outside their comfort zone? Are they adventurers, or are they hobbyists? And if they are adventurers, then I look at the racks and racks of near full body armor for sale in the Harley Davidson store, and wonder how that can really feel that much more freeing than driving a car with the windows down? Seems like wearing just short of an astronaut suit for safety would take the joy out of open air transport, no? When I was at Overland Expo, one of the old Camel Trophy guys cautioned that wearing a full BMW suit of amour was just as isolating from the local culture as a being inside a car.

Sculpture along Main Street.

Do you ever ask yourself that old hypothetical question, “If you could take any adventure (I mean “reality” adventure, not being able to fly or go into space kinda stuff) and be guaranteed you would emerge on the other side unharmed, what would it be?” For me, the decision would probably involve circumnavigation on a sailboat, first and foremost. But certainly a motorcycle ride around the globe would rank pretty high up there too.

I had to do it….it was on SALE!

My other Sturgis souvenir…also on sale. Pays to shop after the rally!

I’ve heard it said that without the risk, the reward is not near as exhilarating. When the risk drops to zero, would the reward still offer the same thrills? Evil Knievel said no, “Where there is little risk, there is little reward.” 

Would that ride on the back of the Cushman, hanging on to my Dad for dear life have been just as thrilling if there had been no risk?  I’d like to think so, but fact of the matter is, I doubt it would have been as ingrained in my memory.

If only the scale of risk versus reward didn’t shift just as the scale of freedom versus age does…

13 thoughts on “Confessions of a Sturgis Lurker

  1. I could not afford car insurance while I was in college in 1960 so I bought a 56 Harley and only paid $80 per year. Rode it till they threw me out in 64 and loved every minute on the road. Wanted one again, but after the Nam getting normal again resulted in marriage college degrees, children and a close evaluation of responsibility motivated safety. So all my open air vehicles either had four wheels or floated. Sturgess has always intrigued me, thanks I now have satisfied that curiosity.

  2. I would love to expand on your motorcycling dreams! If you ever decide to pursue your dream, I would be happy to teach you ☺️

    • Thanks for the comment, Mrs Thompson. Are you an instructor? If so, please feel free to share your contact info here, not only for me but others who might be interested…

  3. Twice we have headed out West on vacation during the Sturgis rally and shared Interstate 90 with thousands of motorcycles. One year we pulled over to a campground off of the interstate for the night that was filled with motorcycles and their support vehicles camping for the night. They put us out in the overflow pasture since every spot was taken. We felt a little silly pulling in with our Suburban, popup camper, and 8 bicycles hanging off of every available space on vehicle and camper. We just pretended to fit in with the “biker” crowd for the night. As we drove through Sturgis, it was unbelievable how crowded it was along with the number of motorcycles!!

  4. Having been to the Sturgis rally a few times I can say that there is about an equal mix of hobbyists and hard core bikers. It is actually quite interesting to see the mix of people crowding the streets and worth seeing at peak time at least once.

  5. Your post triggered two thoughts. When I retired 10 yrs ago, the first bucket list thing I did was to get my motorcycle license and then I bought a bike. I had never ridden or been on a motorcycle before then. For me, it wasn’t about courting danger . It was all about learning and doing something new. I still enjoy riding back roads in the summer when I’m not on a walkabout in my RV.

    The second thought – this song started playing in my head as I read your post.

    • J.Dawg, thanks for the link to the song! I don’t think I ever heard that one before, but I love it! How could I have been such a Neil Young fan since youth, and missed that one?

  6. As a long-time rider, the thrill is nothing about risking my life and everything about the pure joy and freedom I experience. And I “suit up”. Not a fullsize “onesie” like they wear at the track, but jacket, pants, boots, gloves and helmet, all of which provide protection for vulnerable areas. Actually, I’m surprised to hear they sell protective gear. HD and armor are not often closely associated.

    Anyway, it’s also nothing like riding in a car with the windows down. I think you know that, but since you poked the bear, the bear responds. 🙂

    Unless, of course, you’re talking about those riding in the constant parade up and down the main street during the rally. In that case, “That’s Different. Never Mind” (ala Emily Litella). Heck, I’d wear shorts and flip-flops, too.

    That said, I enjoy reading your posts. All-in-all, I find my attitude and thoughts lining up pretty well with yours when you describe your experiences.

    • Thanks for the perspective, Jim(theBear.) I enjoyed reading it. As for the HD comment, well, there were racks and racks of “gear” that looked like armor to me, but maybe it was only leather. LOL! I went in several shops in the area, and just remember thinking “Wow! That must be HOT!” (and not in a good way.)

  7. Its a magical feeling riding a motorcycle as your are much more aware of the immediate environment , far more so than driving a car. I thoroughly enjoyed mine but I’ve no wish to ride again as I dont have the bottle to ride in today’s traffic. But I still love them.

  8. Terry and I road Harleys a few years back but the closest we got to a Sturgis gathering was Laughlin, Nevada during a rally. That period of time was certainly a highlight of our lives. When Terry was young he always coveted a Cushman Eagle, but the closest he came was a Zundapp Bella. Loved this post!

  9. Soooooo yes to this: “If only the scale of risk versus reward didn’t shift as the scale of freedom versus age does.” Here…with both feet crossed over into that hazy area passed “middle age” refusing to step into “old age”, I still cling to the idea that 60 is the new 40. But, of course, for me, 9pm is the new midnight as well.

    What a fun post! It conjured an exciting memory of riding on back of a Moto Guzzi at midnight, my left hip inches from blurred pavement, speeding way too fast for safety on a winding back road in northern Italy in the summer of 1973. :::sigh::: “Are the good times really over for good?” sings Merle. I don’t want that to be so. I don’t want to “give up the things of youth”. So what if I had my “days in the sun”? I don’t want them to fade to my past. Truth: I don’t wish to ride down Main Street in Sturgis on the back of a Harley, but, after enjoying every single word and photograph of this post, I *do*, now, want to sit at the Knuckle Saloon next August during “Bike Week” (I’m old enough I can get up early to snag a barstool before the throngs of roughnecks get there) to soak up a few brewskis and take in all the shenanigans!

    You incite me to dare challenge the notion it is time in my life to sit on the couch after dusk. You continue to inspire me to “Take to the Highway”. Thank you. Thank you SO much for underscoring for me that it is never too late…to go, to do, to be. It is Never Too Late…

Leave a Reply to LuAnn Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *